Lifetime has fewer Christmas movies this year but more 'mature' holiday programming

Religious or secular, solo or in groups, holiday activities revolve around tried-and-true traditions. And cable channels are no different.

Hallmark Channel and its sister station, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, have the Countdown to Christmas slate that, this year, includes 41 films with titles like “Checkin’ It Twice” and “Catch Me If You Claus.” Great American Family's Great American Christmas movie schedule for 2023 includes 20 projects with equally witty names like “'Twas the Text Before Christmas” and “Santa, Maybe.”

But those channels’ competitor in this genre, Lifetime, is, if not bucking tradition, at least spicing it up. The annual It's a Wonderful Lifetime event, which airs programming both on Lifetime and on sister channel Lifetime Movie Network, has only 13 titles this year. And while many of them come with these networks’ own, more cheeky, take on the holiday movie recipe — titles include “Yes, Chef! Christmas” (premiering Dec. 10) and “Mom's Christmas Boyfriend” (premiering Dec. 23) — there are some that diverge.

Read more: From 'Elf' to Selena Gomez to ’80s divas: 24 movies and TV specials to watch this holiday season

“Silent Night, Fatal Night,” which premieres Dec. 7 on Lifetime Movie Network and stars Alex Camacho, Matthew Pohlkamp and Hailey Rutledge, is a thriller that’s probably the closest that any of these channels will get to actualizing “Saturday Night Live’s” viral “Hallmark Horror” sketch from earlier this year that spoofed the genre. “Ladies of the ’80s: A Divas Christmas,” which premieres Dec. 2 on Lifetime, stars actual one-time TV divas Loni Anderson, Morgan Fairchild, Linda Gray, Donna Mills and Nicollette Sheridan as former co-stars and rivals who reunite for a holiday special.

“I think everybody acknowledges that there's an awful lot of Christmas out in the market,” says Tia Maggini, Lifetime’s senior vice president of movies. “Not even [just] all the new things that are coming out and all the people who are doing them, but also the years of holiday movies that we now have in our backlist. … We probably have made more than 100 [holiday] movies.”

She says that in the plots of these movies, “There are certain themes that are evergreens that holiday movie lovers will always enjoy. But there's only so many times you can do that same story.”

Lifetime (and some of its competitors) has long embraced racially and religiously diverse holiday movie programming as well as those that put queer characters in the spotlight. But this year’s “A Cowboy Christmas Romance,” out Dec. 9, may offer different definitions of the word “progressive.”

Its writer, former “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Sarah Drew, tells The Times that she was playing with the idea of “what if we could bring [Paramount Network’s juggernaut] ‘Yellowstone’ and Christmas together?” The film stars Jana Kramer as Lexie Crenshaw, a big-city real estate exec who is forced to return to her small Arizona hometown to sell a ranch before Christmas. She gets more than she bargained for when she meets Coby Mason (Adam Senn), a handsome ranch owner.

What this film lacks in snow, it makes up for in serious familial squabbles, stern language and sex (or at least as much of the last two as the channel felt comfortable showing in a program still meant for intergenerational viewing).

“So many of these holiday movies, they’re saccharine and they're fighting over what frosting should be on sugar cookies and that's the traumatic moment,” says Autumn Federici, who produced “Cowboy” with its director, Jake Helgren. The duo, who have made a myriad of these types of productions, also routinely push the envelope of the genre; Helgren mentions the 2020 Paramount Network title “Dashing in December,” which he says was “our first LGBTQ Christmas movie [and] had two guys in their underwear.”

Federici says that with “Cowboy,” “Lifetime did something different. It's edgy; it's different; it's mature; it's definitely for a mature holiday audience.”

Drew, who learned from some of the masters of treading the line between suds and serious on “Grey’s,” adds that the movie is for “anyone who loves a good hot, steamy romance. It's grounded and there's character drama that everybody loves in ‘Yellowstone,’ but there's also sexy time and Adam Senn takes his shirt off.”

Conversely, “Ladies of the ’80s: A Divas Christmas” pulls its material from daytime soaps. There is a love-connection angle, but it’s very much the secondary story. Name-calling, backstabbing and in-jokes, like a reference to a plot about demon possession, are its main draws.

“I wanted to do a movie with the five ladies and Lifetime wanted a Christmas movie,” says “Divas” executive producer Larry A. Thompson. “Obviously, they wanted the typical Christmas love story because that's certainly an important ingredient in a Christmas movie. And we organically worked the love story into the movie. So it turned out to be a beautiful blend.”

Thompson, who says he also reached out to Joan Collins and Jaclyn Smith but that their schedules wouldn’t allow them to participate, says his film works because “it is a definite spoof on soaps, it's a definite spoof on divas [and] it’s a definite spoof on ladies of a certain age. It’s an outright comedy.”

Thompson already has ideas for spinoffs.

“We're thinking of the ‘Ladies of the ’80s: A Luau Wedding’ — and I wonder what that will be [about] — and ‘Ladies of the ’80s: Paris Fashion Week,’” he says. “This movie brings these ladies back and I don't think we'll ever get rid of them this time.”

This shift in storytelling isn’t just about elevating the genre; it’s also about giving the Lifetime audience what it wants. Some of Lifetime’s most popular shows are reality programs like “Dance Moms” and “Married at First Sight” as well as grisly crime programs.

Maggini says, “A question that we ask ourselves every year [is], ‘How do we go from [true-crime series like] ‘Murdaugh Murders’ to holiday movies?'

“We like to say that it's an audience that comes from a roller coaster,” she adds. “They want the twists and turns. … They want to be surprised, but they also really want to empathize.”

“Cowboy” director-producer Helgren puts it more bluntly.

“I know for a fact that people who love these movies in my hometown in Texas, they will post and post about the holiday romances” on social media, he says. “They might not post about the thrillers as much. But they're watching them.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.